Reading History Together in the Time of COVID-19

hsmt reading group may


John Lidwell-Durnin and Erica Charters offer reflections on the HSMT reading group, graduate student life during lockdown, and how traditional humanities scholarship – age-old practices of reading and discussing together – is tangibly useful, and ever important in the midst of COVID-19. 

The Oxford Magazine [link to] requested a short piece on the HSMT Reading Group for their Trinity Term 2020 issue.  We are grateful for their interest and for allowing us to reprint our article. 

Week 9 of Hilary Term 2020 feels like years ago.  The WHO had declared COVID-19 a pandemic only the previous Wednesday; undergraduate students had just been sent home, but schools were still open; the Bodleian Libraries closed that Tuesday, but scan and deliver services carried on.  Amid the flurry of undergraduates departing, many postgraduates remained in Oxford, reshuffled to new accommodations or staying in (often) tiny student rooms, continuing to work on master’s dissertations and doctoral theses while also full of anxiety – academic and personal.  

If you research the history of science and medicine, being in the midst of an unfolding global epidemic is both eerie and fascinating.  The issues that lie at the heart of your analysis – how disease relates to social structures; how it challenges and undermines scientific and political authority – play out in your daily newsfeed.  Your relatives are suddenly genuinely interested in your expertise; even the Vice-Chancellor quotes from an early modern plague treatise in an official email.  But it is also truly unsettling, for us and for our students.  In week 9, we therefore initiated what seemed an appropriate scholarly response to a global crisis: we started an online reading group with our postgraduate students. 

Bringing together master’s and doctoral students, postdocs, departmental lecturers, and postholders, the reading group has now been running for over two months.  We call ourselves versions of ‘History of Science and Medicine in the Time of COVID-19’ or even, ‘The Consolation of History’.  In week 9 of Hilary, we thought we were innovative in setting up a Microsoft Teams ‘team’ for the group, having never bothered to open that programme before.  Yet in many ways, our reading group is as traditional as it can get: we read one or two articles each week, and then we gather to discuss them for an hour.  No assessment, no end goal, no formal course structure: just reading and discussing for its own sake.  But discussing canonical texts – such as historian of medicine Charles Rosenberg’s ‘What is an Epidemic’ or anthropologist Carlo Caduff’s ‘Pandemic Prophecy’ in the midst of an epidemic, online, and with students and colleagues in lockdown all over the world – is in fact quite unprecedented. 

Many of the texts we have been reading are so-called classics: these are texts we first read perhaps twenty years ago, as introductions to the discipline.  Every Michaelmas Term, we in turn teach them to newly-arrived master’s students in our History of Science, Medicine, and Technology programme, making them write essays on the historiography of disease or global approaches to health, or the history of the use of numbers in public-health policy.  But they are newly alive now for us and for our students.  We thought the reading group would be a temporary measure – to help structure postgraduate students’ long days without friends, family, and fellow students between terms.  Yet the reading group continues on through popular demand, broadening its selection of readings.  Our readings often juxtapose current commentaries with previously published historical works, allowing our discussion to flow between the solace of historical distance and current concerns.   

Many of us are struggling in the new world of COVID-19 and lockdown: childcare, economic worries, health anxieties, concern for now-distant family members, and guilt over our own relative comfort.  We have found that our return to reading and discussing history for its own sake has been a comfort and guide.  The readings offer little in terms of lessons or advice, save for humility; and our discussion also demonstrates that there is little agreement on interpretations of the past.  Evan Bonney, an incoming DPhil student and regular participant of the group, remarks that ‘historians often work to deconstruct narratives that were created either in the past or about the past, but the current pandemic allows us to witness how narratives of disease are constructed in real time.’  The ability of history, and academic scholarship more generally, to encourage reflection beyond our own experience during a crisis is a genuine salve.  Gordon Barrett, a DL in History and Politics, explains, ‘I’ve found it a counterbalance -- it helps contextualise the often-overwhelming glut of news and commentary which seems to be coming from every corner at the moment.’  Likewise, a DPhil student in History remarked, ‘I freely confess that I have not been able to concentrate on my studies as much as I would have liked or expected.  Domestically, I am having to keep a lot of plates spinning at the moment, and these reading groups have helped to provide a simple structure to keep me focused.’

More specifically, a frequent theme of discussions has been the urge to be ‘active’; to comment or engage, to use history to teach lessons about the present.  Shouldn’t the history of medicine and science, if not history more generally, be able to demonstrate its usefulness during precisely these moments of crisis? This is a common concern among our graduate students in general, just as Humanities research has found itself under pressure to show ‘impact’.  Ethan Friederich, third-year doctoral student, writes, ‘my doctoral work focuses on the history of malaria in colonial India. As a result of the novel coronavirus pandemic, never before have I been asked so frequently about the wider relevance of my work, but never before has navigating these questions been so tense and the responsibility of answering these questions so high.’ Our reading group discussions often circle back to this question of relevance, working to disentangle it from significance.  In other words, we have come to recognize that direct relevance is not the same as significance: and that much of what we value – in both the readings as well as in our own research -- is about long-term significance, more so than immediate commentary.  DPhil student Hande Yalnizoglu, who works on epidemics in nineteenth-century Ottoman Iraq, explained, ‘It felt like I should have something smart to say 'publicly' as a historian or that I should make 'intelligent' inferences from what's going on with COVID for my own work. The group has calmed down some of these urges and has given a structure to my disorganized thinking and ideas about today's events.’

Because of the strength of the tutorial system, Oxford’s teaching can sometimes feel focused more on the undergraduate experience than on its graduate students, who make up 49% of the total student population.  The experience of graduate students during COVID-19 varies widely, but – in contrast to most of us staff who are overwhelmed by constant family time – many graduate students have been isolated in small rooms, distant from family in these anxious times.  Our reading group hasn’t necessarily been linked to students’ research: it has been the discussion of ideas with fellow historians, a powerful way to connect with the founding of our discipline as well as with one another across lockdown.  Alexandra Houston, in the second year of her MPhil, is writing her dissertation on seventeenth-century malaria in England, tracking theories of humouralism alongside ecological change; as she explains, her research is focused precisely on ‘the interactions between a disease and the society it exists in, and how the two influence each other.’  Her appreciation for the reading group is ‘both as a historian and, to be candid, as a vulnerable-feeling person living an ocean away from her home and family.’  It has also helped graduate students who have worked hard to come to Oxford, often from far away, and now find their opportunities curtailed.  Floris Winckel notes ‘I promised myself before starting this one-year masters that I wanted to make the most of my limited time here. I already won't be able to do most of the things I had been looking forward to doing due to the lock-down. Still wanting to make use of the opportunities Oxford has to offer, I felt like taking part in this reading group is the least I could do in my remaining time here.’ Likewise, Juan I. Neves-Sarriegui, DPhil student in History, explains, ‘A lot of the encouragement to write and to elaborate creative analytical ideas stems from our everyday interaction with fellow scholars, a painful casualty of confinement. In the same way that e-books don’t replace libraries, there is no substitute for face-to-face encounters, but the reading group has become an intellectually stimulating activity that boosts my otherwise isolated week.’ 

The incredible scientific research ongoing at the University of Oxford has been justly recognized throughout the world – it has made us proud to be part the institution that heads up so many of the cutting-edge responses to this global crisis.  And many Oxford colleagues, including in the Humanities, have been engaged in policy discussions as well as crucial front-line activities.  But it has also been immensely rewarding to be reminded that traditional humanities scholarship – age-old practices of reading and discussing together – is tangibly useful, and ever important.   As Michael Yeo, DPhil student in History explains, ‘I decided to attend this reading group because part of my doctoral research explores the regulation of infectious diseases in the port towns of northern Borneo during the early twentieth century, with all the class and ethnic discrimination that often accompanied such policies in a colonial society. Participating in this group, amid the current crisis, has been a humbling, frightening, and oddly reassuring affair. It began around the time I was placed in a two-week quarantine in Singapore, after I left Oxford. Like everyone else, my life of late has been upended, though admittedly not to the same degree of danger, distress, and despondency as some face. Apart from its scholarly aspects, taking part in this reading group has also allowed me to maintain a sense of connection to university life at Oxford.’